by Leo Jakobson | May 28, 2013
To come up with a few worth profiling, Successful Meetings talked to industry leaders, polled readers, and drew upon our own knowledge of the industry to select four companies that have stood out in the last 12 months. We’ve come up with one company that is harnessing the burgeoning field of brain science, another that is linking meeting planning with expenses and corporate travel buying, a third that successfully combined special events and social media, and a fourth that worked with an industry association to investigate what the future of gamification might be.

Here’s a brief look at what each company is doing that makes it worth watching. 

Maritz Looks Inside Your Head 
Ten years ago, neuroscientist Read Montague turned a decades-old TV commercial into the classic experiment that opened up interest in using modern medical technology to understand how human beings really think. 

Using functional MRI (fMRI) machines that show which parts of the brain are in use, Montague redid the Pepsi Challenge commercial, adding one twist: The group was given two tests, a blind taste test, and a test in which they were told what they were drinking. In the blind taste test, more chose Pepsi. But when told what they were drinking, three quarters chose the more popular brand, Coke. What the fMRI showed is that when drinking Pepsi blind, more reward centers of the brain were activated than with Coke. When knowingly drinking Coke, another part of the brain also lit up on the fMRIs — the part that deals with memories and thoughts. In other words, Montague’s cola drinkers were responding to their brand memories of Coca-Cola. That created the field of neuromarketing.

Four years ago, Maritz created the Maritz Institute to learn how the burgeoning field of neuroscience could be used in other ways to gain more insight into how humans interact, explains Mary Beth McEuen, division vice president and executive director of the Maritz Institute. “The key area we’re looking at is social neuroscience, how people relate to each other, and also neuroeconomics — how does neuroscience overlap with economic models, incentive models,” she says. “We’re bringing what we’re learning from those studies and the scientists in our network to bear on the solutions Maritz delivers to our clients.”

After culling through a lot of research, the Maritz Institute came up with three “people principles.” The first one, which is pretty major, is that people are both emotional and rational. “As we take in information or an experience, we do that through an emotional filter,” says McEuen. “So by the time we make a decision or act on it, it’s been powered by emotions.”

The second principle is that people are driven by many different motivations, not just the “rational self interest” of classical economic theory. For this one Maritz turned to the book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices by Paul H. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, which theorizes that there are four core motivators that drive people — the need to acquire, defend, bond, and create. 

“The third principle is that we’re both individual and social,” McEuen says. “That is the one that I think is amazing and powerful when you think about a meeting. A meeting is really about building and strengthening the social connections.”

The goal is to take that science and integrate it into the total experience of a meeting, McEuen adds. 

“Most meeting planners approach events from a fairly tactical perspective and we’ve begun to challenge people with the idea that maybe your role as a meeting planner is really a community creator, versus simply a meeting planner,” says Greg Bogue, experience architect for Maritz Travel. “If you think about that, it really shifts the focus off of ‘where does the coffee go’ into ‘how do I get people to connect?’”

Another way neuroscience connects back to meetings design is through its focus on emotions, Bogue says, especially when it comes to measuring the impact and value of meetings. “A lot of our measurement systems discount emotional impact, and I believe we’re going to see emotions come back as some form of measuring device,” he adds. “If we can activate people’s emotions about a brand, they’re going to leave that meeting motivated to advocate for the brand, to deliver for the brand, whatever that might be. Data is great — it makes you think — but emotions are what move you. I believe the meetings industry has to figure out how to measure the impact of that emotional energy.”

American Express Connects T&E With Meeting Planning 
This has been a year of change for American Express Meetings & Events. Having agreed to end its Maxvantage partnership with Maritz Travel as of last month, the company is stepping into the strategic meetings management (SMM) business totally on its own. 

When launching the Maxvantage partnership three and a half years ago, American Express Meetings & Events also began “consolidating our business on a global basis outside of North America,” says Issa Jouaneh, vice president and general manager of American Express Meetings & Events. “We now have a proprietary organization of over 1,000 experienced professionals with material insight into our clients’ meetings and events needs, an extensive global footprint, and a deep connection with the meetings marketplace.” 

Even so, there are a number of third party planners offering SMM services. What makes American Express Meetings & Events worth watching this year is that, despite the breakup with Maritz Travel, it won’t be serving this market alone; it will be bringing the corporate business travel expertise of its American Express Business Travel sister company, as well as the expense reconciliation that can be provided by American Express’ corporate card travel and expense management to the table. 

This means that American Express Meetings & Events’ abilities now include coming up with a meetings strategy and planning and implementing it; leveraging the buying power and logistical expertise of the corporate travel buyers to get attendees to and from those meetings; and reconciling the total spend of each attendee to get a better picture of costs. 

There is “an opportunity for us to provide [clients] more solutions that integrate payment as part of the offering and provide an end-to-end solution to our clients who are looking to have that end-to-end integration,” says Jouaneh. “Our differentiation going forward will be that we are truly one single team and organization, not a network or global-by-name-only [organization]. And we will be absolutely focused on providing solutions.”

Extraordinary Events Gets Creatively Social
Many third-party planners have struggled over the past few years with clients who have meetings or events with short lead times, leading to a scramble to get everything from hotels to venues lined up in weeks or days while still presenting a smooth, successful, and creative event. 

When BMW’s MINI car brand came to Sherman Oaks, CA-based Extraordinary Events to create a marketing campaign for its first four-door model, called the Countryman, it came up with a six-week program that asked 17 “lifestyle influencers” — non-celebrities with large social media followings on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — in five major U.S. cities, to come up with an “adventure” that used the car. Each would end with a special event for groups ranging in size from several dozen to several hundred or more, including two large concerts. Among the many complexities was that the 17 events had to be conceived, planned and executed within that six-week window — which ended up giving Extraordinary Events anywhere from three weeks’ to three days’ lead time for events that were going to be filmed and photographed as part of an on-the-fly marketing campaign.  

For example, Soraya Darabi, founder of the blog Foodspotting and who has more than 450,000 Twitter followers, got 20 friends to use MINI Countryman vehicles to collect ingredients for a dinner from all five boroughs of New York City, which was followed by a party for 250 friends, fans, and MINI press attendees with a live DJ and VJ to help celebrate the adventure. 

All 17 events went off without a hitch, and the social media buzz drove more than one million viewers to the main campaign film that resulted, which was hosted on the MINI Countryman’s website. It was a combination of live events and social media that Extraordinary Events President Andrea Michaels feels “speaks to what the future holds in store for our industry.”

That said, “The greatest creativity is in creative listening, because you always, always want to give the client what they want and not what you want to,” says Michaels. “My personal approach is to get each client to prioritize what is most important to them for each and every meeting or event. Is it branding? Is it learning? Is it networking? Is it awards? Those priorities define the final event.” 

Michaels brings that same creativity, attention to detail, and ability to think on her feet to small, traditional clients as well, says Robert Abbott, director of division marketing and communications for the Mueller Company, a 150-year-old manufacturer of water and gas valves based in Chattanooga, TN. Abbott nominated Michaels’ company for inclusion in this article because “she thinks outside the box and never accepts ‘it can’t be done’ as an answer,” he says. “She works with the attitude of ‘there’s a way to get it done’ and she manages to get it done.”

GMIC Plays With Attendees 
Gamification has become a big buzzword in the meetings and events industry in the past few years, as planners of all stripes have come to realize that the same tools that video game makers use to engage and motivate players can be applied in the business world as well. 

While many planners have integrated gamification into their events in some way, few have jumped in as thoroughly as the Green Meetings Industry Council (GMIC), which layered a game over the top of the entire GMIC Sustainable Meetings Conferences in 2011 and 2012. It was a daring move, and one that has had planners throughout the industry talking. 

The first time around, all attendees were randomly placed into groups that competed to finish a sustainable meeting case study organized around where to hold a fictional organization’s conference. Content that would help teams choose came from various sessions and speakers at the conference. A custom-made iPad app had all the details. The second year’s game was more of an individual competition, with the app on smartphones and no leader board.

One of the principle designers of these games was Elizabeth Henderson, chief sustainability strategist of Meeting Change. It was based on 10 principles laid out in the book Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete by Ron Reeves and J. Leighton Read. “We got together a group of volunteers who helped out with the design, and we put together an outline for what a gamified conference would look like,” Henderson says. “We were trying to replicate what makes games so addictive for people in a conference setting, which was a challenge.”

Several lessons about gamification were learned over the course of the two conferences, Henderson says. One of them was about the use of teams. The first year, “people were intrigued by a new idea. Some were frightened by it. We really threw people into it, and put [attendees] into random teams,” she says. “We used some of the psychology out there called in-group bias — you will automatically think that your team is the best. It’s hard-wired into people to think that way.” 

That helped create what she called “an instantaneous level of engagement” the first year. But it was not unanimous, Henderson says. “There was not a lot for people who did not participate to do,” even though they could simply attend the sessions as they would at a normal conference, she says. “They felt a little disenfranchised.” Still, it was more successful than the individual game, she feels, noting: “People were very excited about it, there was feeling of, ‘I’m part of something big.’”